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Recalling the sad confluence of an elk (wapiti) and the hunter who stole his life in the enclaves of Estes Park, Colorado. We weren’t expecting harm to come to these elk, meandering through a residential neighborhood of Estes Park, not far from the Stanley Hotel where the elk herds generally draw tourists with cameras, not suburban hunters.
Ethics in our Western World has hitherto been largely limited to the relations of man to man. But that is a limited ethics. We need a boundless ethics, which will include the animals also . . . The time is coming when people will be amazed that the human race existed so long before it recognized that thoughtless injury to life is incompatible with real ethics. Ethics in its unqualified form extends responsibility to everything that has life.
~ Albert Schweitzer, as quoted in The Emotional Lives of Animals by Marc Bekoff
Witness to an Elk “Hunt” in Estes Park
I’d lived in Colorado, but had never seen a herd of elk walk into a paved cul-de-sac and pose in front of a Mercedes. It was an Estes Park vision — a moment of connection among earthlings in an unlikely suburban context. There were snow flurries. And a stillness that beckoned to quiet communion. Young bulls playfully unhinged three hanging bird feeders in succession and toppled them on the front steps. Puffs of elk breath coalesced with each bugle, with each squeal from the young clinging to their mothers’ sides. We were watching an entire herd pass through a neighborhood cul-de-sac.
Anyone who’s been to Estes Park during elk rut knows the magic that is this ancient, elkish ritual. Where the bulls, some of them old and magnificent, round up their harems and, in the process, bathe the valley in an operatic flourish of bugling. The elk bugle is like nothing else I’ve heard. It is a literal call of the wild, as iconic and as Hollywood as the cry of a red-tailed hawk over a canyon.
–> Listen to a short NPR piece on elk bugling with elk audio.
If you Google elk rut you’ll pull in a preponderance of hunting sites . . . because in as much as elk rut signifies for us wildlife observers a most sacred and precious autumn event, it also coincides with the onset of hunting season. And for many a large-game hunter, elk rut fuels the shooting juices. It inspires net monikers like “elk slammer.” It’s a mental framework I’ve never understood — in spite of my attempts to comprehend what is to me, the incomprehensible joy of bloodsport.
But we were in Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park. In the former, the elk and all other wildlife (until recently) have been protected. And in the latter, the herds of elk are habituated to humans by virtue of camping out on the golf course and grazing at the Stanley Hotel. They’re a draw for tourists and a grand juxtaposition against this residential landscape.
Elk as Urban Dwellers
Because of this, it’s not unusual to see the elk, as we did, traipsing through a garden — or stopping traffic as their massive frames amble across the road. Many years ago, one of these habituated elk named Samson met an unjustifiable end in the illegal draw of a poacher’s bow. Samson was a regular on the grounds at the Estes Park YMCA. The same elk who’d been visiting and socializing with humans for six years prior, saw that trust in humans betrayed in one cruel and despicable act.
Understanding the genuine grief expressed over Samson in Estes Park, it came as no surprise to us that many people we met had a sincere if admittedly mixed affection for the resident elk — in spite of the inconvenience of their size and their sometimes dramatic property-fouling ways. Mischief becomes nuisance for us humans when it comes in the form of a 700-pound bull. There are, of course, those who don’t feel affection whatsoever for the rambunctious elk in their midst.
As we watched this herd, there was a garden fence over which the more experienced leaped without a hitch. The young elk tried, only to be foiled by the height. Another elk would then lead the young one around the side where passage didn’t require a leap of adult proportions.
Breaking the Silence
As the last of the elk made their way beyond the back garden, we heard it. A gunshot blast that shattered the silence like a cannon. The ear-splitting loudness suggested a proximity mere meters from where we stood. The peaceful herd — the animals who minutes before nuzzled each other, played and chased on the lawn, looked after their young — galloped in mayhem back to the garden fence. Mothers with young, bulls and cows all, trampled each other in the panic. The distress cries — the young trying to find their mothers in the confusion — it was all so difficult to bear after witnessing the poignant exchange in the hour just prior. After watching them bond in what can only be described as elegant symbiosis, it was heart-stopping to realize that one of the elk we’d just observed eating from a bird feeder had probably met his bad fate on the other side.
Through the trees, we saw the silhouette of a man. It was hunting season, but we were on a residential street with 1/4 acre (at most) between homes. We were certain we were standing within Estes Park city limits. Scores of “no hunting” signs were posted throughout the area, making us question the legality of the shot.
The elk mob huddled against the garden fence. It’s the scene many a hunter won’t see — the remnants of what the gunshot wreaks, the stressed tableau of the survivors, hidden behind the trees. In the hunter’s world, he or she tends to be shielded from the aftermath of the shot as it affects the rest of the animals. The surviving animals scatter, the hunter sees them no more. I know of an account where a woman witnessed the shooting of a doe, and stopped her car when she realized the doe’s terrified fawn was racing alongside on the road, in utter confusion. In some cases, an animal’s mate or family members (including fawns, when the doe is shot) will stay with their stricken fellow, even as the hunter approaches.
If a hunter wounds and loses an animal, she doesn’t see the aftermath of how that animal suffers with an arrow through it’s breast or bird shot festering in infection. Some animals, mortally wounded or even just grazed by bullets or arrows, will live in agony for a week or two, even, dying from septic infection or peritonitis. Hunters probably don’t see how the animal’s mate for life may stay with the injured animal as it languishes from the wound. Those concerns are, I imagine, immaterial to the pursuit. But they’re germane to the discussions we ought to be having on how we interact with the wild world at large.
Tracking the Shot
I didn’t want to witness the outcome of that shot. But I also knew that if there was any illegality involved, we’d have to find the source to determine this. To access the property where we’d seen the silhouette — without trespassing across gardens — required navigating a maze of dead ends in this new development. So, by the time we reached the site it was 30 minutes later.
We saw the hunter first, at a distance, behind a fence marked private. And then we saw the elk — on the ground with an arrow protruding near his haunch, a poor shot that even an adept bow hunter will acknowledge as questionable. The elk was one of the bulls we had just watched bugling, who then leaped unknowingly to the draw of a human bow and, ostensibly, the shot we heard.
We were seeing our own distressing “after the hunt” scene. It was even more insidious because the elk was a cheat of a target: an animal who had literally walked from a golf course, through a cul-de-sac, past a Mercedes, and into a garden. He was shot from a driveway — with a pickup truck in waiting for the body.
The elk was not dead, even after 30+ minutes. He was raising his massive head and forelegs, struggling to get up. The weapon bearer chatted on a mobile phone, with his back to the struggling elk. My mind raced with any viable options in a situation that seemed beyond amelioration. I scanned the scene for anyone to ask about property lines and hunting ordinances. As I did so, the elk executed his last life attempt and passed into merciful death.
It was a slow death — a common and even expected occurrence in this sport, especially bow hunting — and not the white-washed version often used to persuade the rest of us of hunting’s humanity. Some studies estimate that for every deer shot by bowhunters, one escapes, wounded by arrow or broadhead. If you read bowhunting literature, 30 minutes is not an uncommon time to wait for an animal to die. Expected times range even longer. So for anyone with the illusion that this type of hunt is quick and humane as reported, do some research on “wounding rates” and you may be surprised and probably dismayed by what you find.
We finally saw and flagged a passing neighbor, asking her about this incident, in a neighborhood papered with “no hunting” signs. She told us that although nearly everyone in the neighborhood prohibited hunting, one resident permitted shooting on his multi-acre property. And he had just leased a kill to this “hunter” who literally loitered in the driveway for his pick of this languid, passing herd — on the last day of the season. The property was mere yards from the town boundary so it was technically legal.
But “legal” doesn’t necessarily constitute “ethical.” The elk was shot within meters of artificial fountains and nymph statuettes, basketball hoops, and stamped out development homes. The cliche of shooting fish in a barrel — or rather, in a virtual amusement park — couldn’t be more apt to describe the scene. “I’m sorry you had to see that, the neighborly woman said. “I was as distressed as you to hear that shot.”
In an adjacent, paved driveway, members of the herd who’d made it past the gunman before the shot, were plastered, immobilized against an automatic garage door as the hunter hauled his kill into the back of his pickup.
“That’s Not Hunting”
An old-school Colorado hunter we know, upon hearing this story, frowned and said, “that’s not hunting. That’s not sport. That’s just plain, cold killing.” He suggested we contact local authorities to make sure the elk was legally slain, but we’d already explored that possibility.
There is such a thing in hunters’ vernacular as fair hunt and chase — if one abides by hunting ethics of the ilk prescribed by Boone and Crockett. None of it, frankly, seems all that fair to me when you consider the scent-blocking camouflage, the sophisticated callers, the high-powered weaponry, the ATV shooting. And that in the end, the animal in the scope doesn’t genuinely have a fair shot.
“Fair” is Subjective
Many hunters will tell you the sport is fair. They’ll tell you of the difficulty of tracking a deer equipped with heightened auditory and olfactory perception — senses designed to deal on one level with natural predation, but not with a rifle sight at 500 yards (a tenuous tactic in terms of the “miss” potential, but one some do employ). As a photographer, I acknowledge the difficulty of going unnoticed by animals who are understandably frightened of humans. But even as a person who abides by strict wildlife photography ethics, I’ve been out there enough to know that if my telephoto lens were a rifle, the animals wouldn’t stand a chance. It’s not as tough as hunters will tell you, particularly when they’re camped in stands or behind blinds, on territory where wildlife cams have actually plotted the animals’ passage ahead of time. Some states, as you probably know, allow baiting — where wild animals are lured to a spot with feed and then shot over the food pile.
They’ll describe the hours of misery in the cold wetlands, waiting for ducks to fly into their field of robo-duck decoys and barrage of shotgun fire. (If you haven’t yet, travel sometime on public lands during hunting season to hear and see just how that barage manifests as a flock of ducks or geese passes overhead. For a non-hunter, it can be a genuinely heart-breaking scene to have that pristine silence punctuated by incessant explosion, and the attendant sight of fallen birds.
Deer Fighting Back . . . For 15 Seconds
To prove how dangerous deer are, you’ll hear an occasional story about a downed deer who kicks the crap out of a hunter — often a hunter whose bravado fails when it’s the deer on the other side. Yes, deer are large, powerful animals — particularly erratic when flailing in the throes of mortal injury. But they are no match for the technology employed against them. One hunter described the attack he faced when a lifeless deer suddenly sprang back to life. He said it was 15 seconds of hell, obviously missing the hypocrisy of how many minutes and hours of “hell” his own hand has undoubtedly inflicted over the years in violence against animals.
A Changing Perspective on Hunting
I’ve always given hunters credit for walking their talk and admitting to the brutal reality that underlies a desire to eat meat — in a culture largely dissociated from the truth of those culinary choices. But my wistful paradigm of the “noble” hunter has eroded over the years, the reality of my experience not matching anywhere near the sanitized version one tends to hear from hunters and hunting groups. There’s only so much PR you can throw up around a practice that undeniably causes death and, often (sadly) significant suffering, particularly in the hands of those less adept, and those who don’t live by an iron code of humane standards.
The killing of this elk was one more dubious practices that many hunters defend — but which they would probably do well to reject in the interest of maintaining some sense of credibility for their pursuits at large. In as much as anyone tries to flaunt one’s compassion while allowing this type of inhumanity to persist in their ranks, the justifications for the so-called sport break down. And opposition to the sport gains increasing legitimacy.
It’s easy to justify almost any treatment of non-human animals by adopting a anthropocentric and utilitarian view of animals: they are here, purely and simply, to satisfy our own needs and whims. And that’s what many people do, especially those who stand to lose from increased awareness about an animal’s inherent needs and increased understanding about the complex intellectual, emotional and social conventions among different animal species.
Cracking the Veneer
That reality is compounded by the self-aggrandizing exploits you’ll read in blogs, the overheard bloody tales among hunters at back country cafes, the videos of shooters on You Tube proclaiming “rock star” with each downed animal, or displaying abject glee over blasting the heads off prairie dogs and coyotes, outdoor channel macho shits tracking deer who bleed with arrows through their bellies. What we witnessed is not uncommon. Wounded, bleeding animals die slowly. They get away, succumbing to wounds or septic infection. Poor shots render painful deaths. Thousands if not millions of hunted mammals and waterfowl are injured and never retrieved each year.
Incidents never fail to shatter my faith in the human animal and his capacity to be cruel instead of merciful. As much as we’ve seen, working with animals both domestic and wild — as much as we’ve watched the powerless meet unspeakable fates on this planet — this felt like the final straw in a long life that’s seen too many injured — heard too many cries. And listened to too many human rationalizations.
It’s an emotional slug that will forever freeze that moment in time — the time we met ourselves in the serene enclave of the elk — the time we felt that silent connection, the mutual pulsing of the life force through them, through us — the time we were invited to be part of this peaceful and temporary existence — the time before the gun shot blasted our world. And theirs.
I posted a related essay about hunting in the Bay Area — exploring the ideas presented by hunters, as filtered through the perspective of a non-hunter. You can read that article here.